A succulent film noir requires women who are more than just sexy — they’ve got to promise dirty delights — and Palmetto (Columbia), set in the kind of sweat-soaked Florida town where corruption seems to emerge out of sheer indolence, is blessed with two such unapologetic cheap-thrill vixens. The first is played by Elisabeth Shue, who sports a series of frosty-whip hairstyles and, more strikingly, a pop-eyed gaze and a grin that looks ready to bite. Shue doesn’t seem quite sane here, but it’s a pleasure to see her depart from her usual nice-girl temperance; she swings her body around with a new, almost satirical voluptuousness. Tigress number two is Chloe Sevigny, from Kids and Trees Lounge, who plays a long-stemmed baby temptress who revels in the power to reduce men to panting dogs.
Explaining that they are, respectively, the wife and stepdaughter of a dying millionaire, Shue and Sevigny curl themselves around Woody Harrelson, as an ex-con who served two years on a bum charge and is now seeking payback against destiny. He is, in other words, just resentful enough to be drawn into a bogus kidnapping scheme and behave like a complete sap. Harrelson’s acting grows richer with each film, and here he shows the confidence to avoid reaching for good-ol’-boy comic effects. We’re still chuckling at him, though: The humor in Palmetto arises from the rawness of the hero’s desperation, the way that his hormones — and his hunger to make a fast fortune — overwhelm what little good sense he has.
Directed with sneaky assurance by Volker Schlöndorff (The Tin Drum), Palmetto has a satisfyingly deceptive plot that ultimately takes one too many turns. Michael Rapaport is well used as an oily lug with an outrageous method of disposing of dead bodies, but it’s a bit much to buy that Harrelson’s sculptor girlfriend (Gina Gershon) would be crushed by the revelation of his extramarital hanky-panky minutes after refusing to bat an eye at the corpse in his trunk. At least you believe that Harrelson, crazy with ambition, would actually have put that body in there. B+